Writing at the Edge of the Person argues that the poetry of the Cambridge (U.K.) poets J.H. Prynne, Peter Riley, and Denise Riley uses the lyric to present a form of subjectivity that incorporates exteriority. In other words, lyric subjectivity is not a retreat from the world but is rather a means of interaction with it. This engagement with lyric subjectivity, I claim, responds to Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts, which succeeds in presenting nondominative subjectivity in relation to the poem’s unified structure. Further, the poets’ work contributes to European philosophical debates about the relation between subjectivity, language, and ethics.
Experience (as Erfahrung) is central to the Cambridge poets’ conception of subjectivity, because, as Gadamer argues, experience thwarts conceptual certainty. Prynne’s poetry focuses on the perceptual middle ground between concept and exteriority. Influenced by the work of Merleau-Ponty, Prynne writes poetry centered on perception understood as reflection or reversibility. At this level, poetic language refuses to abstract itself from the material immediacy of perception.
In Poetic Artifice, Prynne’s student Veronica Forrest-Thomson argues that poetry must be understood at the level of its basic materiality before one can convert it into conceptual meaning. Her position had political appeal for the Cambridge poets who were deeply skeptical of new, late-1970s forms of capitalism. Peter Riley’s poetry of the early 1980s uses the earth of coal mines as a principle of impenetrable exteriority and of language’s fundamental materiality. Yet he maintains that one’s subjective relationship with such otherness is essential to being ethical. Riley’s poetry demonstrates that an experience with exteriority exposes a subject and leaves one responsive to the world.
Denise Riley’s work insists that Cambridge-inflected lyric subjectivity can help women negotiate the competing demands for self-identity and identity-as-woman. Her most recent poetry is deeply invested in contemporary painting in part because painting’s ability to have colors bleed into one another suggests to her the active, constructive symbiosis of disparate identities. Like Prynne, she deals with perceptual multiplicity through experiential reflection, which allows her in her poetry to assert subjective identity and a willingness to meet the challenges to stable lyric form and self-identity.